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How John Boehner Could Really Help Iraq

Speaker of the House John Boehner recently returned from Iraq with the message that he would support keeping some U.S. troops in Iraq after December 2011.  While this surely reflects what he heard from the American officials he saw in Baghdad, it distracts attention from a more important question about the future U.S. relationship with Iraq in the primary area where Rep. Boehner could actually help:   halting short-sighted plans to slash the State Department budget which could cripple the civilian mission to Iraq at an exceptionally delicate transitional moment.

Rep. Boehner can not control whether Iraq requests a new SOFA to allow troops to stay. In fact, keeping a small number of U.S. troops in Iraq is not the most important issue for the future American role in Iraq, and the trends in Iraqi politics make it increasingly unlikely that the long-expected request to renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement will be forthcoming regardless of what Americans want.  But Congress does have a decisive role in determining whether to support and fund the civilian mission in Iraq.    Rep. Boehner can do virtually nothing about whether or not Iraqis decide to request a renegotiation of the SOFA, but he can work to ensure that Congress funds the civilian part of American foreign policy which are so urgently needed at this historical moment. He should.  

It is understandable why the question of whether U.S. troops will stay in Iraq dominates what remains of the debate about Iraq, but it really shouldn't. I don't think that a few thousand U.S. troops remaining in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government would be that big a deal -- the removal of 140,000 troops would satisfy the Obama campaign's commitment to withdraw, and the clear commitment to that withdrawal has already had the necessary effect on reshaping Iraqi politics.  The Pentagon has long thought that a small residual force would be a safety blanket against a resurgence of civil war, provide necessary logistical support and training, and signal continued U.S. commitment. There's just a world of difference between a few thousand American trainers and the kind of eternal, large-scale troop presence which used to be proposed.

The U.S. assumption that eventually Iraqi politicians would step up and ask for an extension always seemed to ignore the importance of the political obstacles posed by hostile public opinion. Whatever private support for a longer-term U.S. role exists among Iraqi politicians (and I've heard a fair amount of it), that never extended to public discourse or public opinion. Electoral incentives and the importance of public opinion meant that virtually no politicians have been willing to publicly support revisiting the SOFA -- an important lesson to those trying to understand the likely effects of the changes in Egypt and the region on their foreign policy.  The growing power of public opinion and protest movements certainly won't make Iraqi politicans any more willing to broach such a controversial subject.

If the SOFA is not renegotiated, and no other workaround is found, then the U.S. will have to withdraw all of its troops from Iraq by December 31, 2011 just as promised. Frankly, I don't think that the presence of U.S. troops is really a decisive strategic factor anymore. Iraqi security forces have long-since taken the lead role, and despite the ongoing assassinations and explosions and general violence there have been few signs of a return to civil war dynamics.  Similarly, as expected, the Iraqi political system has eventually found its own balance as it has adapted to the declining American role -- not an especially attractive political balance,with many enduring issues surrounding the centralization of power and inefficient services and power-sharing and unfilled top government jobs and more, but reasonably robust (I keep hearing Iraqis jokingly brag about how they now have the most stable politics in the region). 

Iraq is slowly evolving into a position to be a player in regional politics, rather than an arena where others wage their proxy wars.  Whether that Iraq becomes an effective, independent partner of the United States or develops an alliance with Iran, and how Iraq relates to its Arab neighbors, are among the most crucial variables shaping the the future regional order in the Middle East -- as important as consolidating Egyptian democracy or the Iranian nuclear program.  There will be powerful forces pulling Iraq towards Iran, including not only religious ties but also economic interests and personal relationships.  Rising sectarianism across the region fueled by the Saudi crackdown in Bahrain risks pushing it ever further from the Arab states in the Gulf; it is alarming to see Allawi's Saudi-backed Iraqiyya list denouncing Kuwait as "an enemy of the Iraqi people and its new democratic system".  

As it becomes more of an independent actor, Iraq's foreign policy, like that of the new Egypt or of Erdogan's Turkey, will be strategic and interest-based but also responsive to public opinion.  The U.S. needs to build enduring relationships and engage across all sectors of political society if it hopes to deal effectively with this new Iraq.  The civilian side of the U.S. foreign policy machine has never been more important across the entire Middle East: understanding and engaging newly empowered publics, building connections with emergent civil society movements, partnering on economic development projects,supporting police training and rule of law development.  And that requires thinking past the military mission and devoting adequate resources to the civilian sector --- something which Secretary Gates and the U.S. military clearly understand, but which Congress still seemingly does not. If Rep. Boehner wants to help Iraq and the U.S. engagement in the broader Middle East, this is where he should turn his attention.

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Marc Lynch

Bin Laden's Quiet End

So Osama bin Laden has finally been killed.  This obviously represents the achievement of a goal long sought by virtually all Americans and most of the world, and is a cathartic moment capturing the attention of the world.  As most counter-terrorism experts (and administration officials) have been quick to point out, his death will not end al-Qaeda.   It does matter, though.  There could be some major operational impact on the relative balance among al-Qaeda Central, the decentralized ideological salafi-jihadist movement, and the regional AQ franchises.  But I will leave those crucial issues to others for now in order to focus on the impact of his death on Arab politics and on the broader milieu of Islamism.  

The fact is, al-Qaeda had already been effectively marginalized within the mainstream of the Arab world long before bin Laden died. His death removes the only al-Qaeda figure still able to speak effectively to that Arab mainstream, and marks the end of an era of Arab politics which had already largely faded away.   Al-Qaeda's marginalization in Arab politics has been developing for a long time, and will only be further advanced by bin Laden's death.  How this happened, and how it matters for the rapidly evolving Arab world, are the questions which now need attention.

Al-Qaeda was never able to attract significant support for its salafi-jihadist ideology, and thrived with mass Arab audiences only when it was able to pose as an avatar of resistance to the West.  Al-Qaeda thrived on the "clash of civilizations" and "war of ideas" rhetoric which dominated the first five years of the Bush administration, since this vindicated its claim to speak on behalf of Islam against the West. But the Bush administration's switch in its final two years towards a more nuanced approach focused on highlighting Al-Qaeda's extremism and marginality proved more effective.  The Obama administration continued this approach, and built on it by explicitly reducing its rhetorical focus on al-Qaeda and pushing back against all attempts to reignite a "clash of civilizations" narrative.  That, combined with continuing aggressive counter-terrorism efforts, weakened and marginalized al-Qaeda long before they finally got bin Laden.  

The decline in al-Qaeda's fortunes was also driven by trends inside of Arab politics.    Zarqawi's brutality in Iraq and the wave of terrorist attacks inside Arab and Muslim countries drove a serious backlash.   Arab governments began to take al-Qaeda more seriously, with the Saudis and Jordanians and many others launching major campaigns at home and across the region after suffering terrorist attacks at home. The message that al-Qaeda killed innocent Muslims, reinforced and amplified by American strategic communications and by sympathetic Arab governments and media, took a serious toll.   So did al-Qaeda's repeated picking of losing fights with more popular Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah.  In short, while it was able to appeal to and recruit from the small, extreme sub-cultures which developed around jihadist ideology, al-Qaeda has long since lost its attractiveness to mainstream Arabs.

Bin Laden was the only al-Qaeda figure able to command the attention of a mainstream Arab audience despite these setbacks.  He remained uniquely charismatic and able to frame al-Qaeda's narrative in ways which resonated with a broader Arab and Muslim audience.  His infrequent tapes would still dominate the Arab news cycle.  None of his possible successors have demonstrated such an ability.  Ayman al-Zawahiri routinely issues tapes, but his pedantic lectures rarely gain any traction outside of jihadist quarters.  Some of the "rising stars" such as Abu Yahya al-Libi speak effectively to the radicalized jihadist base, but are somewhere between unknown and incomprehensible to a mainstream audience.  I haven't seen much evidence that Anwar al-Awlaqi has any real presence with Arabic speaking audiences.  To the extent that al-Qaeda's strategy requires reaching out to a broader Arabic speaking public, bin Laden's death represents a major blow. 

The Muslim Brotherhood rapidly seized the opportunity to repeat its frequent condemnations of bin Laden and terrorism.  This should surprise no-one who has been paying attention.  The Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda have long been fierce rivals, competing with each other to define Islamist identity, doctrine, politics, and strategy (for a detailed discussion of this conflict, see my article from last year Islam Divided Between Salafi-Jihad and the Ikhwan).  The Brotherhood used the opportunity to  emphasize their differences with al-Qaeda, to condemn terrorism and violence, to defend legitimate resistance to occupation, and to denounce all efforts to equate Islam with terrorism. It will probably try to use this distancing in its election campaign in Egypt and elsewhere, and to try to reassure the West and its domestic opponents about its participation.  Ismail Haniya of Hamas, by contrast, denounced the killing of bin Laden, demonstrating the real differences among the various organizations within the Muslim Brotherhood milieu (and potentially differences inside of Hamas itself -- something to follow closely in the coming days). 

Bin Laden's death will only temporarily distract the Arab media's attention from the uprisings which have dominated regional politics over the last four months. Al-Qaeda has been almost completely irrelevant to those upheavals, as has been widely noted, and has struggled to find an opening into movements based on fundamentally different principles.  It is ironic that their leader's death has been the first time that al-Qaeda has broken into al-Jazeera's news cycle since the Arab uprisings began.  It will soon fade, and Arab attention will return to Syria, Libya and the rest of the regional transformations. 

This does not mean, however, that al-Qaeda is forever irrelevant, as some would hope.  The horrible bombing in Morocco the other day should be enough to disabuse anyone of such ideas.  The small but dangerous salafi-jihadist base has always been outside of current political currents in the region, and will continue to seek opportunities to act when appropriate.  Indeed, if the revolutions fail, economies don't improve, and elections produce unattractive political leadership, it is easy enough to imagine frustrated youth a few years from now again finding al-Qaeda's message attractive. 

Bin Laden's death marks a symbolic point of closure to an historical period which had already faded from view.  Al-Qaeda as an organization and ideology will likely adapt and survive, the threat will mutate, and Islamist politics will evolve.  It offers another opportunity for the United States to move on from the problems of the past and to establish the new relationship with the people of the Arab world which it so desperately needs.  It doesn't change everything, but it does matter. Beyond that, we will just have to wait and see.